. A narrow, broken ridge of chalky hills in the south roughly follows the coast, the easterly ridge being known as the Purbeck Hills. Further north, a region of sandy heathland (Hardy's Egdon Heath), extends from the Hampshire border to the centre of the county, and another range of chalky downs runs eastwards towards Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire.
. Central Dorset is traversed by the wide, rolling expanse of Blackmore Vale, and in the north is the densely wooded chalk mass of Cranborne Chase, shared with Wiltshire. Portland Bill is a rocky peninsula extending south into the channel, connected to the mainland by the long pebble ridge known as Chesil Bank. The rolling hills of the interior are archetypically English, green and gently undulating, but Dorset 's 75 mile-long shore is full of unusual coastal scenery, such as Chesil Beach and Portland Dill.
. The isle of Purbeck is not actually an island, but a promontory of low hills and heathland jutting out below Poole Harbour , giving it the appearance of an island.
Origin of name: West Saxon settlers who made their home around the Roman city of Dorchester were known as the Dorsaete. Seatan is Old English for settlers.
Name first recorded: 940 as Doseteschire.
DORCHESTER : Lively market town. The local museum is a must for Hardy fanatics.
ABBOTSBURY: Part of 11th century Abbey still remains. Famous swannery and sub-tropical gardens.
BLANDFORD FORUM: The most handsome and uniform Georgian red-brick and stone town centre by the Bastard Brothers.
BRIDPORT: Once famous for its marine rope-making, now an attractive old town. The wide pavements are said to have been for twisting the lengths of hemp.
GILLINGHAM : Historic town where Edmund ironside defeated Canute's army in 1016. Royal manor of Plantagenet kings and hunting lodge King John's Palace; the moat still survives.
LYME REGIS: Scarify steep and winding road drops you into this predominantly late-Georgian seaside town.
POOLE : Sunny resort - tear yourself away from the harbour to see the largest Bronze Age canoe found in Britain , in the Town House museum.
PORTLAND : Famous for its prison, its military bases and its quarries, source of the stone for so many great buildings - including St Paul 's Cathedral.
SHAFTESBURY: Market town of Saxon origin. Don't miss the museum and its display of buttons for which the town was once famous.
SHERBORNE: A gem of a Dorset town historically and architecturally, with two castles and an abbey with a superb fan-vaulted roof. Cheap Street (cheap means market) has a row of Tudor tenements.
SWANAGE: Medieval fishing village along spectacular cliff-lined coast that became a fashionable seaside resort with the coming of the railway.
WEYMOUTH : Port with a good-looking seafront with late-Georgian terraces along the Esplanade.
WIMBORNE: MINSTER Friendly and intimate small town with unusual twin-towered church, many old inns and hotels and excellent local museum.
. Ferndown . Wool
Axe, Frome, Stour .
Pilsden Pen at 909 feet.
. May 13: Garland Day in Abbotsbury. Garlands were once thrown into the sea to ensure a good fishing catch.
. Early June: Wimborne Folk Festival at Wimborne Minster.
. June: Pitchfork Rebellion pageants, to commemorate the landing of the Duke of Monmouth in 1685, in Lyme Regis.
. Late June/July: Swanage Festival of the Arts.
. July: Thomas Hardy conference, based in Dorchester , with lectures, barn dances, guided tours around Hardy Country, coach trips to Higher Brockhampton.
. Late August: The Great Dorset Steam Fair, one of the world's largest, is held at Tarrant Hinton, Blandford Forum.
. August: Dorset County Fair, Dorchester .
. September: Dorchester Agricultural Show.
. Thomas Hardy, outstanding English writer, was born at Upper Brockhampton, near Dorchester , and lived most of his life in Dorset .
. Lyme Regis's most famous resident is John Fowles, author of The French Lieutenant's Woman.
. Sherborne School , a traditional Anglican public school, has been used as a film location many times. The Browning Version (1951, 1994), Goodbye Mr Chips (1969), and The Guinea Pig (1948) were all made here. Although it is a working school, it is possible to see around the grounds.
Most of the County of Dorset is two-tiered: Dorset County Council on one level and five district councils called East Dorset, North Dorset, Purbeck, West Dorset and We/mouth & Portland on the other. Poole is governed by its own unitary authority. Chardstock, Dalwood and Stockland are Dorset detached in Devon controlled by Devon County and East Devon Councils, while Wambrook is Dorset detached in Somerset administered by Somerset County and South Somerset District Councils
DORSET HAS BEEN my 'on location' home for many a television appearance. I filmed the old BBC show The Goodies at Beammster and the classic Canterbury Tales at Milton Abbas. And, of course, Meryl Streep enacted one of cinemas most famous scenes on the Cobb, Lyme Regis, in The French Lieutenant's Woman. I have a vivid recollection of walking along the front at Weymouth , watching the ferries sail to Normandy , when I was staying at Wyke Regis with my showbiz friend Marian Davies.
Dorset 's heart beats at a leisurely rate. Dorchester , the county town (Casterbridge in Hardy's novels), is still predominantly a market town - in many respects little changed from the days when Hardy cycled its streets in search of inspiration for his novels. His statue now stands on High West Street .
Down on the coast, Poole is one of the most continental towns in Britain . It has a wonderfully balmy climate and in the harbour - the largest natural harbour in western Europe - the forest of yacht masts and pavement cafes give you the impression you could be in Le Touquet or Sainte- Maxime - a far cry from the day when Poole was a favoured base for buccaneers and smugglers. In 1747 smugglers boldly raided the Customs House, departing with a rich cargo of tea. From Poole's promontory satellite town of Sandbanks you look out across just a few hundred yards of water to where, at Studland, the Isle of Purbeck throws an embracing arm around the harbour mouth. In the harbour itself, Brownsea Island is 500 acres of woodland and heath run by the National Trust; a boy scout's paradise. To the west are family resorts like Wareham , the comfortable old town of Bridport and West Bay , its fishing village outlet to the sea, and Lyme Regis, where Jane Austen would go when sea bathing was all the rage. Gourmets will be pleased to know that restaurants in the coastal towns and villages make a speciality of lobster - fishing is still an important industry here - and afterwards they will be able to enjoy Blue Vinny, a very strong Dorset cheese similar to Stilton. Inland, the countryside curls and folds in great swathes of quintessentially Wessex landscape - wild and rugged downland, interspersed by pleasant wrinkles of greenery. Here you'll find the most euphonious collection of place names in England - Cerne Abbas (where the giant is cut into the hillside) and Piddletrenthide, Fifehead Magdalen and Gussage All Saints, Winterbourne Whitechurch and the delightful Droop. But in Dorset you carry on until you drop as there's so much to see.
Sturminster Newton, Blandford Forum and Wimborne Minster are towns as beautiful as they sound, and in the charming hilltop town of Shaftesbury the cobbled, cottage- lined Gold Hill has frequently been used as a backdrop to films and television commercials. Sherborne is a splendid base for exploring the ancient trackways and defensive earthworks of west Dorset .
Stone Age man has left his mark on Dorset . The 115-acre site at Maiden Castle is among the most significant in Britain . It was first developed about 2400BC by a Stone Age farming community and subsequently used also in the Bronze and Iron ages. But the ancient Britons' sling stones were no match for the Romans and Maiden Castle fell in a bloody battle in AD43. Thirty-seven years later the Romans founded Dorchester - Durnovaria - and many Roman remains have been found in the town and the surrounding area, such as at Maumbury Rings, where vast gladiatorial contests were once held.
These gruesome traditions continued into the Middle Ages when the gladiators were replaced by bear-baiting and public executions - the notorious Judge Jeffreys once sentenced 292 men to death in Dorchester . Seventy-four of them were hung, drawn and quartered and their heads stuck on pikes throughout the county. Corfe Castle is a monument to centuries of feuding and cruelty dating back to 978, when the 18-year-old Edward the Martyr was murdered on the orders of his step-mother Queen Aelfthryth.
In happier times, British monarchs took a shine to Dorset . Edward I put the royal into Lyme Regis, the county's most westerly town, way back in 1284. George 111's passion for bathing - some say it was an early symptom of his eventual madness - led to him becoming the first monarch to plunge into the sea, at Weymouth in 1789. He set a trend. Georgians headed for Weymouth in large numbers and the town is still a thriving holiday resort and Cross Channel ferry port today. Dorset achieved another cause celebre in 1834 when six men from the village of Tolpuddle were sentenced to be transported for banding together to form the first trade union - the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. The Tolpuddle Martyrs maintained they needed a small wage increase on the grounds that their families were starving and after a public outcry they were pardoned. Their story is told in the room in Tolpuddle in which they were tried, now a museum.